While some think groping is harmless, funny or a privilege that comes with celebrity, Germany is cracking down on wandering hands and putting hard limits on grabbing women.
The first man was recently sentenced to four months behind bars under Germany’s revised sexual harassment law, after grabbing a woman’s rear end on the street, despite repeated protest.
“First, he wanted to know if he could borrow a lighter, then he wouldn’t leave my side. He grabbed me three times between the buttocks, even though I had told him that I didn’t want that,” the 34-year-old victim told German media.
Although the 27-year-old perpetrator denied these claims, saying he only wanted to ask her for a coffee date, the judge said he needed a “warning shot,” as he had a record of prior offenses.
After the 2015 New Years Eve attacks in Cologne, in which hundreds of women reported being raped, robbed or manhandled by a group of North African men, Germany got serious about holding sexual assault perpetrators accountable.
“Justice Minister, Heiko Maas, wanted to calm the public after the Cologne attacks,” Frank H. Langen, a name partner at the Cologne firm Rechtanwälte Langen, told Highsnobiety.
But as many of the men involved in the attack were being prosecuted, Germany found that the crime of groping itself fell between two categories of punishment: sexual insults and sexual assault. The former charge includes purely verbal insults and therefore carries a lower maximum punishment, while the latter includes rape and is dependent on a certain degree of force.
“Some were charged with sexually insulting women, which does not allow for severe punishment, whereas others were charged with assault, but only if they met specific qualifications, such as forming a circle around the women,” Langen said.
This led lawmakers to add a paragraph clarifying groping as an independent category of sex crime with a maximum sentence of two years imprisonment and making it possible to prosecute groups for this crime.
“Not every man who grabs a woman’s buttocks in Germany will end up in jail, but it is easier now to punish gropers. You have a paragraph in the law that specifically deals with this situation and carries an appropriate punishment,” Langen said.
The law puts Germany apart from countries like the United States, which lack national standards that specify groping as a distinct category with specific punishments.
It’s Not a Compliment
Although mainstream attitudes about street harassment and sexual harassment have been improving in recent generations, these issues continue to be a problem for women in public. Nightlife areas and public transport are still rife with gropers.
“For a while, I was getting my ass grabbed almost every day,” Erin M, 24., a pub-crawl leader in Berlin told Highsnobiety. “It is never about making me feel good or confident in my body. It is a power move; they are trying to shows what they can do to you.”
For the majority of women, unwanted sexual attention is a part of everyday life. Cities around the world such as New York, London and Paris have all had to launch anti-groping campaigns owing to the high frequency of men who believe that subway cars are appropriate places to feel up strangers and masturbate. Other cities, like Tokyo, have gone so far as to create female-only cars to prevent sexual harassment.
France’s Deputy Minister for Women’s Rights found in 2015 that 100 percent of women who had taken public transit had been targets of sexual harassment or assault. These crimes are not often reported, but they are easy to prove.
“In cases of public groping, there are often witnesses and surveillance footage that can be used as evidence,” Langen said. “It is not as difficult to prove as other sexual crimes.”
Still, beyond legal repercussions, a cultural dialogue on the importance of consent with any sexual act can help curb the problem. “Sometimes people don’t care, but if I have the chance to confront people, like in a club, conversations can go a long way,” Erin said. “I don’t think the guys that I talked to will be grabbing another butt anytime soon. It’s crazy to think that someone has the right to just sexually grab your body.”
The Refugee Issue
Women’s groups have praised the law for its improvements in convicting sex offenders, but because of the law’s connection to the Cologne attacks committed by foreigners, it also included a clause that would make it easier to deport non-Germans convicted of a sex offense. Critics of the law say it is dangerous to mix the two issues.
Germany welcomed more than a million refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East over the past three years as part of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy. Although requirements for who can come and stay have become stricter, Germans are divided over whether or not to welcome their new guests.
A study by Mercator Foundation and Bielefeld University found last year that nearly one-third of all Germans think that migration poses a threat to their country. When news of the attacks broke, many feminists found unlikely support from right-leaning politicians, begging the question of whether the outrage was for women or against refugees.
Still, Langen says a law can be populist without being racist. “The jails in Germany may have a disproportionate number of foreigners, but this law applies the same to Germans as foreigners,” he said. “The law was popular because it cracks down on attacks like the one in Cologne, but it doesn’t have aspects that could be used to discriminate based on race.”
Of course, laws can be neutral on paper and discriminatory in practice, so it remains to be seen how this particular legislation will be applied.